Looking Back

Was Magellan Portuguese or Spanish?

Portugal is not a usual European destination for Filipino tourists, and the hardy few who do visit this beautiful and historic country flock to Fatima like homing pigeons, missing out on the delights of Lisbon. Walking aimlessly through the winding cobblestone streets of Lisbon’s historic center, stopping only to photograph monuments and manhole covers, I discerned traces of the former seaborne empire whose only link to the Philippines seems to be Magellan, whose death in Mactan in 1521 is known to every Filipino.

Fernão de Magalhães was a Portuguese who led a Spanish-funded expedition to the East Indies (1519-1522), resulting in the first circumnavigation of the world. Magalhães is better known today under his Spanish name, Fernando de Magallanes or, in English, as Ferdinand Magellan, a name that now shares equal billing with the Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano, who completed the voyage after Magellan’s death in Mactan. Theirs is now the historic “Magellan-Elcano Route,” a change that should be reflected in our K-to-12 textbooks, although Spanish and Portuguese historians have reopened a wound that took 500 years to heal.


In 2017, the Permanent Delegate of Portugal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) proposed the Magellan Route for World Heritage inscription. Part of the application argued: “Such an extraordinary journey cannot be understood without having in mind a historical moment shared by Portugal and Spain. Both were acutely dedicated to research and achieved knowledge about nautical technology, cartography and astronomy, as well as other fields related to the exploration of the oceans. Since the beginning of the 16th century, the navigation route designed by Magellan and his sailors during the First Circumnavigation around the World has geographical[ly] and symbolically linked different cultures and civilizations, providing exchanges and achievements in commerce, scientific knowledge and cultural, artistic and religious practices. It may be said that the first globalization of our world started in that moment. Also, for the first time people became aware of the multicultural fact, because multiculturalism was empirically shown as the diversity of people and cultures that made contact with each other.”

Taking into account the simmering grievances over the lack of the Spanish side in the Unesco application, particularly the omission of Elcano’s name, the Spanish and Portuguese foreign ministers in January 2019 agreed on a shared Unesco application as well as a shared commemoration of the 500th anniversary. Unfortunately, all their diplomacy was scuttled by the right-wing Spanish newspaper ABC, which blamed the Spanish government in power for allowing Portugal to eliminate the Spanish role in the enterprise in the first place.


ABC published an article last month with the belligerent title: “The lies of Portugal to appropriate the heroic deed of Magellan and Elcano.” To bolster its argument, ABC sought comment from the Spanish Royal Academy of History, which obliged with a “Report on the First Circumnavigation,” issued on March 10, 2019, that declared the first circumnavigation exclusively Spanish. On March 11, ABC provoked further with an article headlined: “Portuguese historians lash out against the ‘españolidad’ of the first voyage around the world for their ‘patriotismo primero.’” Invoking the infallibility of the Royal Academy on matters of history, ABC published the report in full on March 14. The academy declared that: “The fully and exclusively Spanish nature of the project is not disputable.”

Charles V funded the Magellan expedition after it was rejected by Portuguese King Manuel I. Does this make the enterprise exclusively Spanish? What about the international crew drawn from different countries? By changing his name from Magalhães to Magallanes, did the once Portuguese subject take on Spanish nationality? Can we compare Magellan’s situation with Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, who once played for Real Madrid? Each time Ronaldo scored points in a heated game, did his nationality matter to an international fan base?

What about the Philippine claim that Enrique, Magellan’s slave, was a Filipino, and that his name should also be mentioned in the first circumnavigation of the world?

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, Magellan-Elcano Route
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